Monday, May 27, 2013

Adventure and Danger&mdadh;for History and Culture

One of my students is enthusiastic a out a TV series called "Prison Break." I take it there's a lot of action, and the main characters show a lot of ingenuity. I wonder if any of our students could get excited about this real-world adventure involving people who risked their lives to save thousands a manuscripts about Islam, law, medicine, and astronomy. Sudarsan Raghavan, How Timbuktu's Manuscripts Were Saved from Jihadists, Wash. Post, May 26, 2013.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Learning English

Chapter 4 of Learning a New Land (see my last post) is "The Challenge of Learning English." It offers a lot to think about. Here are some quotations:
[I]t takes longer than most would imagine to develop the English-language skills necessary to be competitive academically, by most, we mean those who have not gone through the process of intensively learning another language—the average, voter, teacher, or politician—who make naive assumptions about language learning and impose unrealistic expectations based on a lack of first-hand experience. Researchers in the field of language learning have long known that acquiring an academically competitive level of language acquisition takes a significant period—from seven to ten years of strong academic environments and frequent second-language exposure.

* * * *

A general assumption is that the younger people are when they arrive in a new country, the better they will learn the new language. The evidence on this issue is complex and debated. Older learners, who have developed literacy in their native language and have greater cognitive maturity, seem to learn the rules of language more efficiently than do younger learners. Indeed, perhaps counterintuitively, assuming an identical quality of instruction, older learners learn a second language more quickly (though younger learners catch up over time). Younger learners generally acquire better pronunciation, however, which makes them seem more fluent and competent in the second language. Further, adults must master a larger vocabulary in the second language to appear "fluent."
The information about age surprised me: I had always heard that younger the better for learning languages. But, having studied a couple of languages as an adult, I do know that I was able to apply to the task knowledge and study skills that I just didn't have the first time I studied a language (7th grade). I'm always totally impressed by anyone who develops fluency in a second language, because I know how weak I am in the foreign languages I've studied. Sure, I can say "What time is it?" or "Where is the library?"—but I know I am far from being able to work or go to college in any language but English.

I think the point about younger language learners having good accents and yet lacking fluency in academic English is really important.

I think about the students I've known in my eight years as a volunteer tutor, and I wonder how many seemed to have mastered English but had the accent and day-to-day vocabulary without having a good understanding of academic English. The student who functions every day in English—talking to friends, playing basketball, going to the store, watching TV, texting, etc.&mash;doesn't know that he or she doesn't know enough English to do well in high school and college. It seems to me that some of the following school issues might have to do with English rather than the subject the students are complaining about:
  • I'm not good at Science. (Is the student's ability to read and understand complex material getting in the way?)
  • I don't know what the teacher expects us to do for this assignment. (Was the student paying attention in class but not able to understand the complicated instructions about a social studies project?)
  • Everything we have to read in English class is boring. (Does the student lack the vocabulary and sophistication to make reading Dickens or Steinbeck anything but a chore?)
  • I don't know how to answer the questions in my history book. (Does the student lack the language skill to read the material, integrate it with what the student has already learned, think about relationships, and reason about the questions?)
  • I hate story problems! (Does the student get confused by the English that's describing quantitative, special, or causal relationships?)
What can we do to help?

I'm not talking about totally reforming the way English-language learners are taught in schools. That would be nice, but it's a big project. Let's think about how our tutoring program can help. I am not trained in language acquisition, so these are just my thoughts.
  • I think it's important for the staff and volunteers to engage the students in conversations. Give them practice talking and practice listening.
  • We can encourage them to read, read, read—including a wide variety of material that will give them practice with academic English (not just fiction, but also news stories, science, business, history, and more).
  • We can also encourage them to take in academic English aurally—watch Ted talks, watch National Science Foundation videos, listen to NPR, listen to podcasts about science or current events, and so on.
  • And we can help them work through all of those homework challenges that might have a language component.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Large-Scale Study of Immigrant Children

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, allegedly committed by two young immigrants, two researchers wrote an op ed piece about the challenges immigrant children face: Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco & Carola Suárez-Orozco, Immigrant Kids, Adrift, N.Y. Times, April 22, 2013.
Whatever motivated the Tsarnaev brothers surely is not the fault of the schools and may never be known. Among some of the distinctive features of their case are family estrangement, multiple relocations across countries and, possibly, religious radicalization. But the broad lesson—assimilating immigrant students into the fabric of society through academic, psychological and other supports—should inform educators and policy makers in the decades ahead, when immigrants and their children will account for most of the nation’s population growth.
book jacket Learning a New Land
The op ed's byline cited their book: Carola Suárez-Orozco, Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco & Irina Todorova, Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society (Harvard U. Press, 2008, paperback 2010). The Kindle edition is just $9.99 so I started right in, and I've been fascinated. Here's the publisher's page for more information. And here's the Amazon page, in case you're also an Amazon shopper. (Seattle Public Library has two copies, but they're both checked out.)

The Suárez-Orozcos are co-directors of the Institute for Immigrant, Children, Youth , and Families at UCLA. In the book's introduction, the authors characterize Carola as "a cultural psychologist with strong developmental interests," Marcelo as "a psychological anthropologist with a long history of involvement in the field of immigration and refugee studies, and Irina as "a cultural health psychologist." So you can imagine that their research is interdisciplinary.

The book presents the results of a five-year study of about 400 recently arrived immigrant children. They only included children who had spent at least two-thirds of their lives in their original country, not the ones who immigrated as babies.

The children were in seven school districts in the Boston area and the San Francisco Bay area. There were about 80 children from each of the following countries or regions:
  • Haiti
  • Dominican Republic
  • China
  • Mexico
  • Central American countries (e.g., El Salvador, Guatemala)
Bilingual research assistants from the relevant communities interviewed the children and families, made observations in the schools, talked to teachers, and so on.  They also looked at the children's environments: the quality of the schools, the poverty rate, street crime, and so on. It's really an impressive project. A fuller description is here: Longitudinal Immigrant Student Adaptation Study.

I strongly recommend this book for anyone who works with immigrant students (and, for that matter, for people who care about the quality of American society).

If you don't have a taste for social science research, the first chapters, where the authors describe their methodology and report statistical results, might seem dry (even though they do illustrate the statistical generalizations with examples of individual children). You might like to jump to chapters 5-8, which tell the stories of 21 students. They are grouped according to their academic trajectories.
Of course, each immigrant life is unique and irreducible. Nonetheless, each portrait demonstrates the many ways that immigrant youth are propelled to become high achievers or conversely to become disengaged low achievers.
I found the first chapter of these portraits very disheartening, because these were the children who disengaged from school, failed, or dropped out. I looked at the table of contents and was relieved to see that the chapters ahead would have more hopeful stories. The chapters are:
5. Portraits of Declining Achievers
6. Portraits of Low Achievers
7. Portraits of Improvers
8. Portraits of High Achievers
There are many factors that make the difference between the sad stories and the hopeful ones. Maybe the factors won't surprise anyone: the high achievers "tended to be enrolled in supportive schools, to have caring teachers, and to develop informal mentorships with coaches, counselors or ministers." (quotation from the op ed piece)

This reinforces my commitment to the Youth Tutoring Program. Whatever else is going on for these students, we know each child has the attention and concern of the center supervisor and two tutors.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sleepy Kids

Are Your Students Sleep-Deprived?, The World blog, May 8, 2013, reports:
A new international study concludes that western countries have the most sleep-deprived children. The study, conducted by researchers at Boston College, attributes this conclusion to the overabundance of technology children in affluent countries enjoy, which contributes to these wired children going to sleep later and getting insufficient rest when they do finally fall asleep.
That's one more factor to keep in mind when thinking about how to help students learn and grow.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Lots of Astronomy Sites and Activities

Is your student interested in astronomy?


One place to start: the UW Astronomy Department's Astronomical Links for Everyone.

Stardate "is the public education and outreach arm of the University of Texas McDonald Observatory. Our radio program airs daily on almost 300 stations. And our popular bimonthly astronomy magazine is the perfect skywatching companion for anyone interested in astronomical events and space exploration. We also offer astronomy resources to teachers, the media, and the public." Check out the Classroom Activities page.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech has a page for the Spitzer Space Telescope. There are lots of images, animations, and videos. I think it's cool that they have a page of models. Two are paper models: you print out the PDFs then follow the instructions to cut and assemble the models of a space telescope and a rocket. There are also instructions to make a model of the space telescope out of LEGO!

Hubblesite's Explore Astronomy page has a lot of interesting content. It's from the NASA team that created and manages the Hubble Space Telescope.

Amazing Space, "uses the Hubble Space Telescope's discoveries to inspire and educate about the wonders of our universe." The Homework Help page asks kids if they want to:
  • Answer a question?
  • Dig up a definition?
  • Find resources for a project?
  • Write a story?
  • Get the latest scoop on space?
  • Earn extra-credit points?
  • Shed light on another subject?
  • Compare cosmic objects?
  • Study for a test?
  • Debate an idea?
  • Build a model?
. . . And then links to sections that will help them with those tasks.

Tonight's Sky has a movie telling you what constellations to watch for (in the Northern Hemisphere) each month.

Cornell hosts Curious About Astronomy? Ask an Astronomer which has information and podcasts.

Activities in Seattle

Astronomy events at the UW
  • The Theodor Jacobson Observatory has free talks on the first and third Wednesdays of the month April-October. If the sky is clear, they open up the roof and let visitors look through the old telescope.
  • The UW Planetarium welcomes "school groups studying astronomy, public groups (astronomy clubs, scouts, etc), and on-campus groups to visit the planetarium on Fridays during the regular University school year."
  • Anyone can go see the sundial on the wall of the UW's Physics Astronomy Building. Learn about it here

The Seattle Sundial Trail has a map and directions to help you visit other sundials here. It also has pictures and explanations of how they work. Like sundials? See the North American Sundial Society site. The Sundial Atlas has different styles of paper sundials, customized to your location. You plug in some information and a program draws a PDF that you then print. Making and comparing a few different sundials could be a good summer project.

Seattle Astronomical Society

The Seattle Astronomical Society hosts public star parties. Members set up their telescopes in a park and anyone who comes can look through them and learn a little about what they're seeing, There's a site at Green Lake and one in Shoreline (Paramount Park, NE 158th and 8th NE). They happen about once a month, weather permitting. The next one is Saturday, May 18.


The American Astronomical Society has a page about Careers in Astronomy. Other pages about careers: